I’ve kept an idea journal for as long as I can remember. Whenever a word, sentence or story idea strikes my fancy, I jot it down and date the entry.
One day, I thumbed through the pages, noticing dates on entries. A pattern emerged. Whenever I felt at peace with my life, I saw numerous entries, many of which inspired stories and essays.
However, the number of entries decreased to almost none when I was experiencing turmoil. One year stood out. I was stuck in a conflict with a person who had no interest in resolution. I felt hurt and angry. A tape ran through my mind reviewing how I was wronged, what I should have said, what should happen to make things right… ad nauseam. This tape consumed me, leaving no space to think. My creativity was being held hostage by my refusal to forgive and let go.
During that period, I subscribed to a phone app that delivered a new word each day. One day my screen displayed the word dharna—the practice of exacting justice by sitting and fasting at the doorstep of an offender until death, or until the demand is granted. I’m assuming that means after someone hurts you, you plant yourself on his doorstep just waiting for an apology and recompense. You stay until the person makes amends or until you die. The definition didn’t specify who does the dying. Either way, if no apology is forthcoming, you lose. Either you die and never receive the apology, or the offender dies and you don’t receive an apology.
I realized that by clinging to my grievances and waiting for an apology, I was sitting by the door, starving, dying and not doing what I’m meant to do, which is write. I understood that I needed to forgive regardless of whether that person ever acknowledged any culpability. The writer Anne Lamott, says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” Therefore, forgiving was in my self-interest; I needed to be free and whole again.
Sometimes, you have to choose to forgive then wait for your heart to catch up with your head and your actions. Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who was imprisoned by the Nazis, says, “Forgiveness is an act of will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
For me, forgiveness involved changing the tape that was running in my head; that meant reading, praying, getting counsel and setting good boundaries. Thomas Szasz says, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” So, you forgive, but you don’t allow the person to continue to harm you.
I relapse frequently. How do I respond? I try to remember not to drink the poison.
How do you know you’ve forgiven someone? You stop wanting to retaliate. You are at peace with them and your mind is free to take up other tasks, such as resuming a creative, productive life.
Author of Fatty in the Back Seat, Deborah M. Prum has won nine awards for her fiction, which has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin and other publications. Her audio book, First Kiss and Other Cautionary Tales, is a collection of essays, which have aired on NPR-member stations and have appeared in The Washington Post and other publications. She’s written for Writer Magazine, The Writer’s Handbook, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Magazine. More of her work can be found at www.deborahprum.com
Just like the adage about loving yourself before being able to love another person, I’ve come to understand that in order to write with depth, you first have to learn to write about yourself. I grew up in a close-knit Philadelphia neighborhood of row homes and old-world tailors, Holocaust survivors, first and second generation East European Jews. Although the streets were rich with stories, I had internalized society’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed obsession and was diverted from appreciating them. (Ironically, I’d read Issac Babel’s accounts of his Jewish Odessa neighborhood with passion, lamenting why I’d been born in a place where people like this did not exist.)
It wasn’t until I was studying poetry at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, that I considered my own family worth writing about. Up until then they were distinctly uninteresting people—loud and unconventional, in distinctly boring ways, rooted in a depression-era ethos that seemed only oppressive.
But at Iowa my teachers assigned heavy doses of the confessional poets, in particular Robert Lowell, who wrote almost exclusively about his family. Although they were WASP Boston Brahmins and radically different from any people I knew, after reading about them I began using his lens. I saw for the first time the depth of my grandmother’s barbiturate addiction, the sordidness of my strip club owning uncle and the violence behind the catcalls which my sisters and I regularly endured just walking down the street in V-neck t-shirts. Reading Lowell enabled me to examine and value experiences I had undergone, as raw material for my writing.
Poems flooded my brain. I wrote one called In Grandfather’s Stamproom, about his collecting obsession which went on while my grandmother, a hypochondriac, readied herself for what would be her hundredth operation, her body serrated with cuts, bruised to a postage stamp’s vibrant magenta. I wrote other poems about my relationships with different family members, particularly my father, who raised three girls in the free-love atmosphere of the early 70’s, with hitchhiking, and anti-war demonstrations and the ever-present smell of weed.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t over romanticizing nature or imitating poets like Rilke or Anna Akhmatova. I was depicting people I was familiar with and conveying something new. When I finished I held the pages of what was to become my first book, The Christmas Show. But I also held something else—my family’s history. And with this came a new sensation, a feeling I can only describe as akin to dignity. I was now the chronicler of an important history.
I so wish I could go back and talk with some of my old neighbors. Populate my stories and poems with them, give voice to those who wove through my early years. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My novel, based on the true story of a South Sudanese refugee, is about to come out. I believe that my family examination laid the groundwork for me to invent characters based on other real people. It gave me the tools to draw out connections as I immersed myself in the South Sudanese community.
And this week, when I watched the Olympic Refugee team enter the stadium on opening night in Rio, I was overwhelmed. Some of the athletes had lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp, the same hot, dry land that was home to Michael, on whom my protagonist is based. FilmAid international is showing a special broadcast of the opening ceremony to the children at Kakuma. It is my hope that the achievement of these Olympians will help shape the narrative of displaced children in the future—and when they look back.
All families, all people, come from somewhere.
Poet Harriet Levin Millan’s debut novel How Fast Can You Run is described by Kirkus Review as a “deeply felt novel of grace and intelligence.” The book, due out October 28 from Harvard Square Editions, is based on the life of South Sudanese Michael Majok. Millan’s The Christmas Show, won both the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Catagnola Award and the Barnard New Women Poets Prize. Her second book of poetry, Girl in Cap and Gown, was a National Poetry Series finalist. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches creative writing at Drexel University.
Featured image at top, All the Love Is Gone and You Know by Bruna Ferrara. CC license.
Michael fled his village in South Sudan at the age of five. He trekked a thousand miles through war zones to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he lived for a decade. As a child at Kukuma Refugee Camp, Michael played soccer using a blown up latex glove fished from a trash bin outside the hospital tent. He learned to play chess and checkers under the punishing sun from old-timers who sat bereft of their children and their land.
One of the most life-negating situations a person can face is to live without a sense of a future. Added to the threat of war breaking out, attacks from hostile tribes, lack of food and water, recurring malaria, typhus, tuberculosis and a host of other diseases, day to day existence is dire in the remote desert climates where refugee camps like Kakuma are located. “Living in a refugee camp means that your life is on hold. Once I came to the States, I was able to plan ahead, to have a future,” Michael told me.
In a deal brokered between the U.S. and the Southern Sudanese leader John Garang, who died in a mysterious helicopter crash, Michael received political asylum to the States along with approximately 4,000 other unaccompanied minors, the so-called “Lost Boys.” We met when One Book, One Philadelphia chose Dave Egger’s novel What is the What about Valentino Achak Deng, another “Lost Boy” of Sudan for the city-wide book club. One Philadelphia asked me to choose ten of my undergraduate creative writing students at Drexel University to interview ten Sudanese immigrants for a City Paper series. Michael was the first of those interviewees. We became fast friends. Soon he asked me to write a book about his life.
I found him to be in possession of a rare sense of optimism that I couldn’t help comparing to my own relatives and neighbors who had escaped pogroms in the early 1900s or death camps in Europe during the Holocaust. Considering that they came from different parts of the world and experienced different traumas, this shared characteristic struck me. Then I realized, this is the indomitable spirit of a survivor, this is what it takes to survive. And I wondered how many of us have it.
As I was finishing the novel that would become How Fast Can You Run, South Sudan was about to become the world’s newest nation. After twelve years in Philadelphia, where Michael attended college and graduate school, he yearned to return home.
I traveled to Juba to visit him in 2011 and witnessed the euphoria that seized everyone. Something miraculous was happening. A new nation was coming into being after a civil war between the north of Sudan and the south of Sudan that had started when Sudan was first declared an independent country in the 1950’s.
But now that the South has gained its independence, its dreams are on hold again, and not because of the North. The fighting is internal. The Vice-President is in hiding. The lines of contention are split between Dinka and Nuer, the two dominant tribes in South Sudan. “Alongside the civil war raged southern fratricidal conflicts,” National Geographic reported in a 2013 article about the region, “the most bitter fighting between Dinka and Nuer factions.”
According to Aljazeera, the number of South Sudanese refugees in East Africa could hit one million this year. “Nearly 1 out of 4 South Sudanese has been forced to flee for their lives.”
One reporter wrote that learning about the plight of refugees puts the vagaries of “her own life in perspective.” We know this view. It’s the one that continues to alienate us from the suffering of others.
I want to put forward a different view. I named my novel How Fast Can You Run (instead of Shake Loose the Scorpions, a title I loved suggested by the poet Kate Sontag) because I did not want the title to make the book sound like it was happening to people other than ourselves. I want to help cultivate compassion, encourage involvement in campaigns to open borders and aid refugees. I want my book to reverberate: this can happen to you or me, it can happen to anyone.
May the hostilities end, may the people of South Sudan be restored the peace they deserve after so much suffering and travail, after so much dispersion and bloodshed. And here in the U.S. as our cities become divided and as acts of unpredictable violence become predictable may we all heed the lessons.
Harriet Levin Millan’s debut novel novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of Michael Majok Kuch, is due out October 28, 2016, a Charter for Compassion Global Read. Her poetry book, The Christmas Show, won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Catagnola Award and the Barnard New Women Poets Prize. Her second book of poetry, Girl in Cap and Gown, was a National Poetry Series finalist. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches creative writing at Drexel University.
Sitting on my desk right now, asking for attention more ardently than any of the other chores I ought to be doing—such as my own writing, or, for example, this blog—are these two beautiful books of poetry. They have some things in common. Both writers are women, both write an eloquent lyric line, and both are past editors of this very magazine.
Susan R. Williamson, while she still lived in Charlottesville, was the editor in chief of Streetlight for two years when it was still a print magazine. Roselyn Elliott was the co-editor for poetry of the final print issue. Bias admission: I worked with both these editors in those days, first as a contributor and later as an editor myself. However, my praise for these books is not simply a connection to the pleasure I experienced working with these women. I had already known them as fine poets. Therefore, seeing this work in print has a double resonance, the gratification of seeing friends succeed, and the satisfaction of seeing in print their wonderful poetry.
Susan Williamson, in addition to past glories at Streetlight, has also served on committees for the Virginia Festival of the Book and The Charlottesville Writing Center. She has been a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow, and whew, holds a BA in French Language and Literature from the University of Virginia and an MFA from New England College. She is now, our loss being their gain, Director of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, itself an amazing event, well worth looking into. Her book is Burning After Dark, a slim collection of indeed burning poems, many of which have already seen print in such magazines as The Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Virginia Quarterly.
Roselyn Elliott is a master essayist as well a much published poet and teacher, with work having appeared in The Cumberland River Review, ABRAXAS, Diode, among others, and guess what, Streetlight Magazine. This is her fourth chapbook. She has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, Piedmont Virginia Community College, The Visual Art Center of Richmond, Virginia, and WriterHouse, here in Charlottesville, before she too deserted us for parts greener.
Both these women write with a vigor and precision for detail which is astounding. Their work, while being deeply personal, is also remarkable in its consciousness and a sure relationship to the greater world, a seeing and feeling for the universal within the particular. There is pain and longing in both of these small books, but also a deep and sharp enjoyment for the sheer sense of being alive. Reading these books will enrich your life. I promise that, I really do.
Burning After Dark, winner of the Hannah Kahn Poetry Foundation 25th Anniversary Chapbook Competition, is available from Amazon.com. You can find Ghost of the Eye for sale at the website for Finishing Line Press, its publisher.
As the new poetry editor of Streetlight, I find myself caught between the delights and demands of poetry and the nightmare of current events happening here in our nation and globally. I want to attempt to answer a question which, ironically, I haven’t actually heard being asked: of what value is poetry in this near-apocalyptic world we’re living in, a world where, at least in this country, we, absurdly, can’t even agree to keep guns out of the hands of known terrorists?
In many places in Europe and Asia poetry is not only an art form but is an act of witness to injustice, war, repression, genocide and other atrocities. While poetry is not a sword or gun it can be sharp, potent and powerful nonetheless. Countless poets and writers from Dante to Nadine Gordimer have been exiled or banned for speaking truth, as they see it, to the powerful and malignant forces surrounding them. Here is a well-known poem which still reverberates in our own time:
First They Came for the Jews by Martin Niemöller
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Here’s another poem of witness, perhaps even more artfully constructed:
The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska, Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
Artists throughout history will not be silent. In their laments and elegies they have opened themselves and their poems to suffering and exploitation, including that of the besieged earth itself. Here’s a poem which does what all good poems do; it is specific and concrete, full of sensory details. It is also hopeful and yearning for a rich and generous future for coming generations:
Don’t Destroy the World by Ellen Bass
I want the future to extend before me like the horizon
widening as I walk. I want the blue sierra that I planted
squatting over the child in my womb
to grow into a thick tangled hedge
rich with blossoms and bees buzzing like crazy.
I want the smell to make someone’s great great
Imagine that we are all born
with the gift of time.
I invite you to submit your poems to Streetlight, poems which might occasionally move into another realm beyond the myopically personal; poems which connect the small self to the whole body of humanity. These poems are difficult to write without veering into diatribe or rant, without giving vent to an undisciplined torrent of emotion. But they are well worth the effort. They may stretch you as a writer, stretch us as readers as they enter that great stream of courageous poems of truth. They may become poems not only of witness but also of healing.
Before she turned to poetry Sharron was a Social Worker serving low-income families and the mentally ill and worked as a community organizer around issues of civil rights and the anti-nuclear war movement.
Her poems have appeared in Agni, Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, among others. In 2009 she won the James River Writers Contest and was named the Poet of 2010 by the journal Passager. She also won 1st place prizes in 2010 and 2012 in the Poetry Society of Virginia annual contest, 1st place in the MacGuffin Poet Hunt contest in 2012 and 1st place in the Sixfold Contest in 2013. In 2015 she won the Thomas Merton Award for Poetry of the Sacred. Her chapbook, A Thin Thread of Water was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press.
She teaches poetry in Charlottesville and in her town of Scottsville, is married with two children and five grandchildren.
I met Eleanor Gaver in a writing workshop in L.A. and we kept in touch after she and her husband and daughter moved to NYC. I knew she had recently finished a film and knowing how hard it is to get financing I asked her how Here One Minute was able to go from script to screen.
Eleanor: I got so tired of writing scripts and waiting years to get the money to make the film; I was so tired of hearing, ‘No.’ I decided to make a film regardless. I wrote the script for Here One Minute, and found four acting students from the Stella Adler Studio who were very young and enthusiastic. But I soon realized they had no experience. And to work around this I realized I needed to let them play close to who they were. So we began to workshop my script. We improvised scenes, wrote, rehearsed, rewrote and rehearsed and shaped the story’s characters about who these young actors were as people. Basically they wrote their parts and we got the script to sound like them. You might say Cassavetes style.
The kids who played the graffiti boys were kids my daughter knew from high school and kids pretty much on the street. When we decided we were going to have these graffiti kids in the film we began going to the neighborhood parties and filming them so they’d get used to me. And we figured out which ones would be best for our film. It was all part of the rehearsal process. We never knew if they were going to show up. One of the kids was arrested and we had to rewrite his part. Another one said that making a movie changed his life and he went into rehab.
It took us four years to make Here One Minute . We started with Kickstarter but their all or nothing policy made us move over to Indiegogo. We raised $17,000 on Indiegogo which paid for the initial three week shoot and a rough edit. The producer then screened it for an investor, who paid for an additional week of shooting and the post-production. Only the DP (director of photography), his crew, the sound person and the editor were paid. Everyone else worked for free. Crowd funding is very hard beyond family and friends. I was just so thankful that all my actors, volunteers, stuck with us for the four years it took us to make the film.
Our first distributor went out of business and then Gravitas Ventures came in as our distributor. We cut the trailer and put it on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook.The premiere, the first time screened, was at Dances With Film in 2015 in L.A at the Chinese Mann Theatre. That was a nerve-wracking experience for me. I kept looking at the edges of the frame of the big screen. I was so afraid I’d missed something on the film while working on my computer.
It’s a good time for young filmmakers because you can do it all in your computer. It’s all digital and you don’t need a print. It’s just getting the people to see it and grow your audience beyond the people you know. Here One Minute will play in different places—video on demand, streaming, iTunes and Google Play.
And now we’re working on a web series, Tripolar, that will be about what was it like to make a movie; a series about some drug-addled women who decide to make a movie.
Eleanor Gaver: I studied film at N.Y.U. MY first feature, Hearts and Diamonds, was bought by Prism Entertainment, which then promptly went out of business and the film was never released. Next I made a biker picture, Slipping Into Darkness, for M.C.E.G. Entertainment in exchange for them funding my next film, but then they went out of business. I directed some music videos and episodes of Tales of the Darkside. Then, I made Life in the Fast Lane with Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Tea Leoni and Patrick Dempsey. Fox Searchlight optioned one of my scripts and asked me to make a film for their Searchlab, so I made Buddy’s Big Break. And now, Here One Minute.
“Here One Minute, set in New York City’s East Village, this timeless coming of age story highlights many issues facing today’s youth. This gritty indie film depicts graffiti, sex and substance abuse in a way that recalls cult classic, Kids. Larry Clark’s recent comments surrounding the Kids’ 20th anniversary that “Kids could not be made today” are challenged by Here One Minute, which centers around a group of kid’s search for answers surrounding a night that ends in tragedy.
Shot on the streets of New York with a shoe-string budget, it was important to Eleanor Gaver (Writer, Director) to capture the heart and soul of the city. Producer Schuyler Quinn felt it was a natural fit to cast up-and-coming actors alongside New York natives. The authenticity of the casting is immediately evident by their unique slang and inherent swagger. “We show sex, drugs, the streets of our city, but we aren’t trying to glamorize the lifestyle…this is just an honest tale about what it’s like, growing up in New York City right now.”
–by Trudy Hale
Feature image from Here One Minute. Copyright Gravitas Ventures.
Some writers spend years honing their craft until their work unfolds with the effortless grace of an Olympic figure skater. It’s the kind of ease and proficiency that looks impossible—belying countless hours of rehearsal—and can make an audience gasp. Diane Whitbeck is such a writer. A prolific freelance writer and published author, she has ghostwritten fourteen books in just two and a half years and has also authored six books under her own name. I interviewed Whitbeck about her writing career, and though I had only a short list of questions, she offered me a feature-length odyssey from the world of freelance writing.
First, I asked Whitbeck to share her definition of ghostwriting, and she explained that it involves “taking your ego out of it… Although your thoughts and your creativity, and your actual work goes down on the paper, you have to remember it’s not going to be yours—it’s not going to belong to you.” Ghostwriters typically sign a non-disclosure contract and are not entitled to royalties from a published work. Instead, they receive their pay up front and let their clients take full credit for the writing.
Whitbeck’s freelance writing, mostly non-fiction work, covers a broad range including persuasive letters, technical manuals, copy for websites, and legal and scientific writing in addition to full-length books. Surprisingly, her latest ghostwriting job was a paranormal romance novel. When I asked why the majority of her work is non-fiction writing, she explained that people “have an idea or they know a topic is popular, but they don’t know how to do the research, they don’t have the patience for the research… and they don’t know how to write.” When Whitbeck mentioned that she had ghostwritten a book about the popular paleo diet, I was itching to ask her which one. I searched for “paleo diet” on Amazon.com and found a staggering 5,967 paperback books on their website. Stunned, I could only wonder what percentage of those had been ghostwritten.
I was also curious about how flexible a freelance writer has to be to satisfy such a broad range of clients, so I asked Whitbeck if she has to create a specific voice or style for each client. She answered simply, “Yes.” then elaborated, “I have my own style—it’s engaging, it’s informal. I like to interact with my audience even in a non-fiction way. With fiction, it’s definitely more stylized because [clients] will tell you ‘I want this kind of tone. I want this sort of approach. I want you to sound like an expert…’ and some of them have no idea how they want it written.” She also adjusts her tone and style to address a particular audience, and though it’s no surprise to hear she’s written at a sixth grade level—a popular, casual style suitable for blogs—I was impressed to learn that her written work has been submitted to the Secretary of Defense and even the President of the United States.
If you’ve never freelanced as a writer, then you might wonder how Whitbeck finds her work. And how can she promote herself as a qualified writer if a contract prevents her from mentioning her books by name? Actually, freelance writers have a variety of platforms to find leads for work, and websites like Freelancer, Upwork and Fiverr provide job listings of all types. Professional writers can look at available job opportunities and bid on a listed writing contract. Meanwhile, ghostwriting is a subset of freelance writing, and some jobs can come from word-of-mouth referrals.
Whitbeck writes books for “the lifelong dreamers. They’ve always wanted to write a book…but they don’t know how.”
Whitbeck, an assiduous worker, has built an impressive profile on Upwork.com, and though she can’t mention some of her writing by title, she has an impressive portfolio and offers services like proofreading, editing, and HR management consulting. Upwork utilizes a worker rating system powered by client feedback, so with a solid rating and the ability to turn out a written work quickly, a good writer will attract job offers. Will you get rich quick from freelance writing? Not likely. Whitbeck says the standard rate is roughly a penny a word, but since the publication of her first ghostwritten book, she now earns four or five cents a word on average.
Another important skill for a freelance writer is the ability to create a solid contract. “I always insist on having a contract—with every client—and that very carefully spells out the conditions that we’re operating under.” Whitbeck said. She explained the need to define particulars, and her comprehensive contracts cover everything from expected performance and lack of performance to breach of contract and penalties for a breach. That’s good advice for anybody that is freelance writing. Whitbeck added, “You have to protect yourself because you’re in business for yourself…you’re an independent contractor.” In the rare event that a client breaches or fails to pay, her contract ensures ownership of the written work fully returns to her and that she still receives a percentage of her pay based on a daily work rate.
After learning so much about Whitbeck’s ghostwriting, what I really wanted to know was: why choose to ghostwrite in the first place? Why not self publish? Whitbeck told me, “Partially, it’s due to availability. There are a lot of people out there that want ghostwriters and are willing to pay you.” Then from a more emotional place, she confided, “I had a fundamental lack of confidence in myself… going back to when I was 12 and decided I really did want to be a writer. By not having to put my name on it, I was able to experiment and see: could I really do it?”
Freelance writing and ghostwriting can provide steady income for professional writers, and the volume of contracts available promises a writer that she can occasionally find an enjoyable topic. Sometimes a contract even challenges a writer and leads to an unexpected outcome. On one such occasion, Whitbeck begrudgingly accepted a job for a book about women’s style and fashion. “Look at me.” She muttered during our interview. “I am the least stylish person on the planet.” I asked if all the research into women’s style and grooming had changed her personal habits. “Not a damn bit.” she replied.
Still, her client loved the book, and Whitbeck explained, “He said it was the best book he’d ever read. He didn’t change a single word.” That’s a high compliment, and surely that outcome feels rewarding in itself; but Whitbeck also enjoys helping people fulfill their lifelong goals. She added, “I write so much that to me it’s like second nature and… there are people out there that can’t write—and who really need help.” So she continues to write books for those “lifelong dreamers”.
In her own words, “They’ve always wanted to write a book…but they don’t know how.”
Diane Whitbeck spent 25 years as a Logistics Management executive. In conjunction with that career, she has been a Personal Coach, helping clients solve life problems. In her retirement, she has devoted herself to being a freelance writer and published author. She currently has 6 books in the self-development arena on Amazon. She has been the ghostwriter for 14 additional books. Diane is also a prolific poet, and performs her poetry in clubs and cafés in the Richmond, VA area, sometimes backed by a trio of jazz musicians.
By Spriggan Radfae
feature image by Brittany Stevens. CC license, image cropped, text obscured.
My mother gave me her old Nikkormat camera when I was 13 years old. She’d spotted my interest in books of photographs by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and set me on an evolving path.
I used the Nikkormat as a photographer and Editor-in-Chief of our weekly paper at the Taft School and again at Northwestern University’s newspaper. My Nikkormat was in hand during six years in Alaska, including three years in Gustavus at the mouth of Glacier Bay National Park where I basked in views of icy straits and was lucky enough to have a sweet little dark room. My prized camera also accompanied me for three years flying out of Skagway with Skagway Air Service.
When I wasn’t on shooting assignments, I tried to capture “fine art” images focusing on people and street scenes as well as the spectacular landscapes of southeast Alaska and Virginia. I received no formal training until much later when I took several digital photography classes at UVA followed by workshops with photographer Harold Ross. Until then, I relied instead on Ansel Adams’ The Camera, The Negative and The Print.
My Nikkormat was a rugged, dependable friend for a long time. It was hard to put it down when digital technology began emerging. My first camera still sits on a shelf where I see it every day.
When my wife gave me my first digital camera – a Nikon D40 – I buried it on another shelf. Digital wasn’t real photography, after all. But constant chiding from a photographer friend to embrace and learn the new technology, finally wore me down. I never looked back. These days I shoot with a Nikon D750 full-frame camera, and a Fujifilm X100S a surprisingly powerful little camera.
Despite some 30 years with my Nikkormat, I didn’t really develop a sense of intention or satisfaction. Something was missing. Over the past year, I’ve discovered what was missing – light.
I’d spent most of my photographic life chasing beautiful landscapes, compelling subjects and strong compositions. But without full attention to light, there was nothing. Now I look for light; I let the light show me what it will. I find my subjects often take me by surprise. Now more of my images are still lifes, often combining objects that have little relationship until they are illuminated to tell a different story. I try to create images that suggest a mood, or another other life beyond the objects themselves.
I’m also trying to strip down my images so they are much simpler. My goal is to find character in increasingly ‘boring’ subjects and mundane landscapes, to appreciate beauty in ordinary things.If an image needs an explanation, it isn’t doing its job.
My recent still life images are assembled from a growing collection of found/scavenged/discarded junk…old airplane parts, broken machinery bits and pieces, antique laboratory equipment, shop tools, and random objects from around my house and yard. I stage various items on a basement table, looking at them for a scene that hints at a mood, a purpose, another place, tension, calm….Often over a period of days, I’ll swap or move things around until the setup feels like it has something to say.
I shoot these scenes in total darkness. I set my camera for long exposures and illuminate each item with a variety of lighting sources – mostly different sized flashlights. Each object has a role in the image and gets its own particular illumination.The capture process takes anywhere from one to several hours, depending on how complicated the scene. It results in many separate exposures, sometimes hundreds. Most exposures are discarded; the final image often comprises 20 – 50 separate captures. What I love about this process is that I am really building the final image from a pile of smaller individual components.
Each image is really a merged stack of images, because I am taking one photo of each different element in the scene, and that requires a lot of blending and combining in Photoshop. I am not combining things that were not there. I am just photographing them one at a time and then putting them together, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.
There is usually relatively little manipulation of color, contrast and saturation apart from adjusting exposure and white balance to make all the individual pieces match each other. The depth of color, texture, and richness of the image stems from the lighting of the object in each of the original captures. If this is done correctly, very little manipulation is needed later.
Striving to be a professional photographer, I believe a professional successfully creates images with intention. He can visualize the final image that he wants to create from a scene and he has the technical skill to capture and develop the scene.
I still admire Ansel Adams for his vision, his technical prowess, his dedication to the craft as well as his embrace of the constant technological progress that has always driven photography forward. I’ve also been profoundly affected by John Hulbert, a UVA photography instructor who pushed me to understand and master my camera. And Harold Ross, a photographer of light-painted imagery, literally showed me the light.
Ayres’ first solo exhibit will be shown at the University of Virginia Medical Center from July 8 to September 2. The opening reception will be held from 3:30-5 p.m., July 22nd at the Medical Center. To see more of Ayres’ work go to https://faxayres.smugmug.com
A native of Greenwich, Ct., Ayres was graduated from UVA’s Darden Graduate School of Business and worked as an investment manager in New York. He moved to Charlottesville in 2000 to become CFO at Monticello. A commercial pilot, Ayres enjoys flying, his cameras on the ready, always along for the ride.
We lived in a very small town on Eastern Long Island, closer to duck and potato farms than New York City. But my parents believed that it was important to see beyond the local environment and travel was one of the ways they taught us, my sister and me, to open ourselves to the world. Thus, almost every Winter Break we went on a journey. When we were young we traveled to Florida staying at hotels that were steps away from the beach. When I was eleven we went on a cruise which was so bad we jumped ship at our first port of call, St. Thomas, in the U.S Virgin Islands. My father got our money back from the cruise line so I guess he was in the right. When I was twelve we went “island hopping”, a common phrase for tourists of the West Indies. We went to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and then Cuba. Looking back I think my father had a penchant for dictatorships with five star resort hotels. However all three countries were friendly to Americans spending dollars and traveling with children. There were certainly no warnings posted by the U.S. State Department to stay away.
Our last stop was Havana, Cuba, a most beautiful and luxurious city with very expensive boutiques and fabulous restaurants and casinos. It was December of 1958, the weather was perfect and Havana was dressed in holiday lights and getting ready for New Year’s celebrations. We were staying at the famous hotel run by Meyer Lansky. Yes, he had been a gangster, but was now merely an innkeeper and casino manager. At least that is what New Yorkers believed. He had been exiled to Cuba by the mob. We arrived on December 29th and spent the next two days sightseeing, shopping and swimming. I took special pleasure in sneaking into the casino and dropping a nickel into a one arm bandit to see if I could win a jackpot. After I won twenty dollars, the guards kindly escorted me to the lobby to wait for my parents. If I lost my nickels they looked the other way but if I won…
New Year’s Eve was a big extravaganza and we dressed in formal attire for the event. I do not remember my father ever wearing a tuxedo just to go to dinner but that night he did. Of course it was more than dinner. We were in the ballroom and there was an orchestra and entertainment and a very elaborate menu. The flowers were special and holiday lighting added to the beauty of the room. The Lanskys even greeted us on a receiving line wishing us Happy New Year as we entered the room. Mrs. Lansky was dripping in diamonds and other jewels. She looked like a Hollywood movie star. Later that evening I met her again in the ladies room. One of the spaghetti straps holding up her gown had broken and a maid was anchoring it back to the dress with the diamond and emerald pin she had attached to her silk evening purse. How clever I thought! My parents drank and danced and I was pretty bored but tried to take it all in. A young teenage boy invited me to dance but my father would not allow this. After all, I was only twelve.
The next morning we were awakened by street noise. My father explained that in Latin America, New Year’s Day was celebrated with fireworks and gunfire, that what we were hearing was the sound of cherry bombs just like we had on the Fourth of July. I also heard screaming but thought maybe it was intoxicated revelers on the street below. My sister and I went out on the balcony but we stayed there less than a minute because we heard gun shots and felt as if we were the targets. Maybe we were.
I put on the television and all the channels had the same program: a bearded man, very cute, dressed in army fatigues, speaking animatedly into a bank of microphones. I got my father out of bed to see this. He took one look and turned ashen under his holiday tan. He told us to stay inside and away from the windows. He called for room service and was told that there was none today. Breakfast was in the dining room. Within a few minutes my father herded us to the elevator. No one was in attendance so we got to push the buttons. What fun! There were a lot of people in the lobby just hanging around talking in low voices. We went on to the dining room and there were the Lanskys serving us eggs and toast and fruit and juice and coffee. No diamonds for breakfast that was for sure! They explained that the entire staff went out on strike. We were told to stay inside the hotel for the time being for our safety. Since it was a holiday we had planned to spend the day at the beach and at the pool. Being cooped up on our last day of vacation really was very disappointing. We were supposed to fly home the next day, then back to school and work.
By lunch time we learned that the airports were closed, no taxis were in service and the bearded man, Fidel Castro, had come into Havana from the mountains on New Year’s Eve and taken over the government. I was not impressed with him if he could not get the people to work. But the workers were out celebrating or out killing the opposition. My parents were becoming more and more anxious. Mrs. Lansky was busy emptying ashtrays in the lobby and Mr. Lansky was trying to keep everyone calm. We were told that the United States government was making arrangements to evacuate Americans either by submarines from the naval base at Guantanamo or by boats to Key West, Florida. By the second day with cold cereal for breakfast, no coffee, no juice, we were permitted to go out to the pool but the armed guards were terrifying and we only stayed outside a short while. It was very boring. No good food, no casino, no shops open. My sister and I were forced to finish our vacation school work which we always left for the last minute. Fidel was still talking on television.
The next morning, January 3rd, we were told to pack one suitcase per person, just enough for us to carry, and report to the lobby by noon. The champagne purchased for my sister’s sweet sixteen party would have to be left behind. We boarded buses and were taken to the harbor. Much to my disappointment we embarked on very old and small ferry boats, not submarines. We waited until dark to leave the harbor. My mother was terrified. The boat was overcrowded with people and luggage. The ferry groaned as it started out away from port. Before long a storm came up and the boat swayed with the swell of the waves and the rain that actually felt refreshing. My mother was sick from the roller coaster ride.
I remember reading a great book, a mystery, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, during the rest of the night. The seas calmed down and most people slept. I finished my book feeling like a juvenile delinquent pulling my first ever all-nighter. But I was happy to see the sunrise and then see the first signs of land. Key West looked like a sand dune but it was land. We were greeted by the Salvation Army band playing patriotic songs, a coffee truck and twelve school buses. There were custom officials checking passports and many of the Cuban refugees were placed on a separate bus. How they sneaked on a ferry is a mystery to this day but I think Fidel liked cash.
We were taken to Miami Beach to await our trip home. Somehow we had a reservation for the next day. When we entered our hotel suite, sitting on the coffee table was a copy of the New York Times. On the front page staring at us was Fidel Castro in his hotel suite toasting his comrades with glasses of champagne. To this very day I am convinced that he was enjoying the fine wine we were forced to leave behind. It must have been so because even my parents thought I was right.
Born and raised on Eastern Long Island, Marjorie Rissman attended Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, and then Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. After college she attended the University of Michigan School of Social Work and obtained her MSW degree. She wrote both in prep school and college and then life intervened. It was not until five years ago, when her older sister passed, that Marjorie began to write again. Although poetry is her first love, she has just begun to write memoirs. Marjorie lives in the Chicago suburbs and is a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker.
Higher than a hired man’s head,
a chain bubbles from the tree’s heart
and falling thirteen links, dares
a boy’s reaching, his pretending—
its original purpose unknown.
It is not a hanging tree or surveyor’s
witness, but a yard-oak to dream under.
The chain was left there in a fork
by heart attack or by forgotten convenience,
has provoked the grain to snarl
and restless, has rubbed a triangle,
an arrow, in the gray bark. He sees
the ladder he must climb to know
how chance and choice can be useful.
After the Funeral
Hands high on the steering wheel, white headlights
tunnel through darkness like moles looking for home.
We drive the unfamiliar, swerving for eyeshine
the way people dodge pauses in conversation.
His friends’ faces were ivory in formal black,
with no teasing trace of color, no news, no
humorous tale that would bring him back to us.
His girlfriend was red-faced, jealous of their simplicity.
My wife and I draw words from the fifty mile silence,
place them between us on the dashboard
and we build a small biography there, vulnerable,
with no shock value to its implications.
Interrogative miles answer nothing,
excuses collapse like bottom land
chewed away by flood waters.
Our son, like promises for old age, is gone,
his poems forever unfinished, lost friends
lost, the knock unopened. It will be years
we write valedictions in cursive,
the black flow will relieve the ache of white pages,
like the escape route the Navajo
weave into their blankets for good measure.
Frederick Wilbur was brought up, and still lives in, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, so he relies on imagery derived from the natural landscape to explore human relationships. He has been an architectural woodcarver for over 35 years and has written numerous articles and three books on the subject. His poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, The Lyric, The South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, New Virginia Review, and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.
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